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European Union

Volume 604: debated on Tuesday 12 January 2016

1. What discussions he has had in the Council of the EU as part of negotiations on the UK’s membership of the EU on free movement of people in the EU and access to in-work benefits. (902963)

2. What discussions he has had in the Council of the EU on the Prime Minister's letter dated 10 November 2015 to the President of the European Council as part of negotiations on the UK's membership of the EU. (902964)

13. What progress the Government has made on the renegotiation of the UK's terms of membership of the EU. (902975)

14. What progress has been made on negotiations to reform the EU and the UK's relationship with it. (902976)

Before I answer, let me take a few seconds to update the House on the breaking news from Istanbul, where an explosion has occurred in the Sultanahmet area, killing at least 10 people, with many more injured. This is a tourist area of the city and we already know that some tourists are involved in this incident. We are seeking to verify whether any British nationals are involved, and if we get any news on that in the course of the next hour, I will update the House accordingly. In the meantime, I offer my sympathies to the victims, their families and everyone else affected by the attack. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

The Government are negotiating reform of the European Union and a new relationship for Britain with the European Union to fix the aspects of our membership that cause so much frustration in Britain. Following a substantive and constructive discussion at the December European Council, member states agreed to work towards mutually satisfactory solutions at the February European Council.

I echo the Secretary of State’s sentiments regarding the situation in Istanbul. Does he accept that the Government’s failing negotiations will put at risk British jobs, employments rights, opportunities for my constituents to work abroad and ultimately the economic growth that the Government have promised? If the Prime Minister is getting nowhere in these talks, how on earth will he get on in the negotiation that he is really thinking about—the one with his own Back Benchers?

On the contrary—a successful negotiation will set the EU on a clear course to create jobs and economic growth and to ensure Europe’s competitiveness in the future, and a referendum settling the question of Britain’s membership of a reformed European Union for the future will allow Britain to exploit to the full the opportunities that membership of such a Union will offer.

The letter of 10 November is clear. It is also clear that whatever the outcome of the discussions on that letter, none of the situations set out in that letter are deal-breakers for the Prime Minister. At the end of the day he will recommend a yes vote and a referendum. Why does he not get on and do it now, set a date, face up to his Back Benchers and promote the European Union for the good of Britain?

The Prime Minister has been clear throughout that once we have an agreed deal, he will make a recommendation based on his assessment of the best interests of Britain. That is what drives him; that is what will determine the recommendation he makes.

Many people are suspicious about the seriousness of this renegotiation when three of the so-called demands were accepted without any negotiation at all. Why, for example, did the Government bother to ask for a cut in red tape and for more competitiveness when the European Council has made it clear—in European Council after European Council in recent years—that that is exactly what it intended to do anyway?

It is true that we have seen, particularly under the present Commission, some very welcome moves to address some of the measures that make the European Union increasingly uncompetitive in the global market. But we are not seeking to get a political fix by one Commission: we are looking for an institutional restructuring that cements these arrangements for the future to ensure that the direction of travel remains one that the British people can be comfortable with and that will benefit the British economy and this country for the future. That is what we are going to do.

All four of the Prime Minister’s demands in these negotiations are important, but making sure that we as a country continue to enjoy the full benefits of the single market without being a member of the eurozone is clearly vital for millions of British jobs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is the key area for measuring the success of the negotiations, and can he update us on progress on that?

My right hon. Friend will know, and opinion polling shows, that many people in this country regard the question of migration and access to welfare benefits as the key area, but my right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. All our European Union partners, inside the eurozone and outside, recognise that that issue has to be addressed. As the eurozone integrates, as we believe it will have to do to be a success—and we very much want it to be a success—the interests of those European Union members not inside the eurozone must be protected. Only if we can be confident that those interests will be protected can we welcome the integration of the eurozone countries to protect their interests and the interests of the euro in a way that will not damage ours. So I agree that it is an absolutely vital area.

The thoughts of everyone on these Benches will obviously be with those caught up in the incident in Istanbul.

As I understand it, the Prime Minister has called for a “united, harmonious and mutually respectful” debate within the Conservative party on the issue of Europe. In a united, harmonious and mutually respectful way, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to confirm that a referendum could not be held within six weeks of the date of the Scottish, Northern Irish, London and Welsh elections? If it were, that would be disrespectful to both the decision of this House and the people engaging in those elections.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that is not what the Bill provides for. But given the timescales involved and the fact that we now expect the conclusion to be reached at the February European Council, I think he can be confident that it will not be possible to hold a referendum before the date of the Scottish elections that he referred to.

I put it to the Foreign Secretary that if the referendum were held within six weeks after the date of the elections, the two campaign periods would intersect, with all the complications that would arise. Therefore I ask him again: will the date of the referendum be at least six weeks after the date of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections?

What I am trying to convey to the right hon. Gentleman is that that is not what the Bill provides for; the Bill does not place any prohibition on a referendum being held in that period. Ultimately, however, the decision will be made by this House because the date will be decided by a statutory instrument brought before the House.

I hope that the Foreign Secretary is aware that the overwhelming majority of the 800,000 Poles working in this country have come to work. They pay miles more in income tax than they claim in benefits. Can we get back to real, constitutional renegotiations that affect the sovereignty of this country rather than the fixation of the media on in-work benefits?

We are elected to, and have to, address the concerns of the British people, and there are four areas on which we need to make progress with our European Union partners. One is migration and access to welfare benefits, but the others—ensuring that the EU is competitive, that there is a proper mechanism for the repatriation of powers to the member states, and that the relationship between the euro and non-euro countries is properly regulated to protect the interests of the non-euro countries—are also very important. I agree with my hon. Friend that we have to make progress on all four.

May I, through the Secretary of State, thank the Europe Minister for meeting an MPs’ delegation yesterday on the plight in Portugal of Paramjeet Singh, and for his efforts to date? As the case in Portugal moves to the political, ministerial stage, will the Foreign Secretary say how our Government hope to take the matter forward?

We are following the case closely and we have already made the Portuguese authorities aware of Mr Singh’s asylum status in the UK. India has not yet presented Portugal with a formal request for extradition, and as such we are not aware of the full details of the charges that he faces in India. We will continue to monitor Mr Singh’s case and will make a decision on further action when all the facts are available. Ultimately, however, it is the Portuguese authorities that have jurisdiction in Mr Singh’s case and will decide whether or not to extradite him to India.

One area not raised in the letter of 10 November was that of national security. Would the Foreign Secretary like to tell us a little about that issue and how important ensuring that proper national security is maintained will be in relation to our remaining a member of the European Union?

As my right hon. Friend knows, national security is reserved to the member states and we regard it as very important that that should remain the case. However, there is a tension because national security interacts with many other agendas where the European Union does have competence—for example, around the regulation of telecommunications. Ensuring that that balance is maintained correctly, and that the crucial national security interests of the member states cannot be interfered with by the European Union, remains one of our priorities in the negotiations.

May I first thank the Secretary of State for the update on the situation in Istanbul? Of course, our thoughts are with anyone caught up in this awful situation.

Those campaigning to leave the European Union have made much of the unrealistic argument that Britain can simply walk away and magically retain trade agreements that are in place precisely because we are a member of the EU. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on British industry and British business of Britain having no say in future EU regulations that we will almost invariably be required to comply with? In other words, what will “out” look like for British industry and British jobs?

Let me first welcome the hon. Lady to her position on the Front Bench. Indeed, let me welcome all the new members of Labour’s Front Bench team, across the party. Let me also pay tribute to the former shadow Minister for Europe, the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden). It is a sad indictment of today’s Labour party that people get sacked for refusing to excuse the actions of terrorists who murder innocent people and threaten our way of life.

We are clear that Britain benefits from access to the single market. If Britain voted to leave the European Union, we could not be guaranteed continued access to the single market. Britain benefits from the free trade agreements that have been negotiated by the European Union with third countries. We could not guarantee that renegotiating such agreements with the United Kingdom would be a priority for all those third countries if we were outside the European Union. But in the end, this is a balancing act. A proper calculation has to be made between the costs and the benefits of membership. What we are trying to do in this negotiation is decisively to alter the balance in favour of British membership so that we can convince the British people that that is the right future for Britain.